There nothing worse than going to an art gallery and instead of finding the walls laden with paintings, they are strewn with small notices: in restoration; lent to such and such an exhibition. It’s even worse when the pictures in question are the most important ones in the gallery’s collection. And they usually are. Who’d want to borrow a Morris Minor when you can borrow a Rolls-Royce?
Galleria Borghese method
Rome’s Galleria Borghese has one of the top collections in Italy, therefore, is often asked to lend its paintings to other galleries for exhibitions. They have got round disappointing their visitors by replacing travelling works with other works from their archives. Instead of a big blank space, you get a painting and you wouldn’t notice if there wasn’t a discrete note placed next to the replacement painting’s label.
Has anyone seen San Girolamo?
On a recent visit to the Galleria Borghese—more about it in a later post—I saw this practice in action with one unhappy and one very happy result. Let’s get the unhappy result out of the way first. Caravaggio’s San Girolamo, one of the greatest works by one of the greatest Roman artists, is in Paris, on loan to the Musée Jacquemart-Andrée. And while Saint Jerome is living it up in France who hangs in his place but San Rocco. San Rocco in a work so inferior to the Caravaggio that it hardly seems a suitable replacement.
San Rocco and his dog
Instead of the sharp facial features of Caravaggio’s saint, those of Giovan Francesco Guerrieri’s seem fuzzy. Much of the painting, to a modern eye, seems pixellated. The saint reclines awkwardly on the ground, all dirty toenails and rags, while a small dog sits next to him with a facial expression which seems to say, ‘I know I’m only here to fill in this gap in the composition.’
A different story
Upstairs however, a beautiful surprise is waiting. Part of the Galleria’s permanent collection is Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child. Next to it, instead of Lorenzo Lotto’s Madonna and Child with Saint’s Ignatius of Antioch and Onuphrius, which is in restoration, is Giovanni Busi’s Madonna with Child and Saint Peter. Let me give you some background.
Bellini: more than a drink
Giovanni Bellini (c.1430–1516) is the best known member of the Venetian Bellini family of painters. Highly appreciated in their own lifetimes, in Venice they were the artistic superstars of their day. Everybody wanted a Bellini in their building, and so the churches and galleries of Venice are full of them even now. There’s even a famous cocktail named after the family.
Giovanni Busi (c.1485–c.1547), known as il Cariani, was an artist, born in a small village near Bergamo, who later had a decent career at Venice. He’s listed as a ‘master artist’ in the city from 1509, and presumably had been apprenticed there, where he would have been very familiar with the work of the superstar Bellini family.
The two Madonnas
Comparing the two paintings in the gallery is fascinating. Both are labelled as being completed in 1510. Giovanni Bellini, would have been an accomplished artist of eighty-years old and Giovanni Busi a newly qualified one of about twenty. At first sight, the paintings couldn’t be more different. In Bellini’s the Madonna sits quietly, carefully cradling a very well-behaved baby Jesus. In Busi’s painting, Jesus appears to be doing a dnce on the table, with his mother, trying to stop him falling off, and Saint Peter behind looking very embarrassed. It’s all action, compared to Bellini’s contemplative work. The slightly awkward composition of a modern young man as opposed to the masterfully assured work of an older one.
What do you see?
On closer investigation, you notice something remarkable, that you would never have seen had the two paintings not been placed next to each other. The Madonna, seems to be the same person. She has the same hairstyle, the same facial features, and the same clothes. The same white wimple is bordered with the same gold embroidery. The same blue overcoat, over the same pink dress. This is not coincidence based on iconography. Yes, Venetian virgins of this period almost always wear red, white, and blue. But this is copying.
In my opinion, Busi had to have seen the Bellini painting and copied it as a tribute to the Venetian master. It was a away for the younger man to draw attention to himself. People in the know in 1510 would have seen old maestro Bellini’s work and would have smiled at the homage the young man was paying him. And all to think, had Lotto’s work not been in restoration, I’d never have seen this. Thank you, to the curators of the Galleria Borghese. I don’t think this was coincidence either. They know exactly what they are doing.